Rethinking Europe

Western Balkans: Europe’s Front Yard

An important decision will be taken by the European Council regarding the future of EU integration for Albania and North Macedonia.

(Credit: ABC Photo - Shutterstock.com)

Takeaways


  • The cost of integrating the Western Balkans into the European family and system of values is much lower than keeping them at arm’s lengths.
  • What direction the Western Balkans will take depends on the EU’s geopolitical vision and the political will in the countries for democratic reforms.
  • The EU will always remain engaged in the Balkans. It is the largest donor, the largest trade partner and the largest foreign direct investor in the region.
  • Russia’s interference in the Western Balkans has increased. At a minimum, it wants to raise the costs of the region’s integration into NATO and the EU.
  • Potential alignments between Beijing’s and Moscow’s anti-Western spoiler narratives should not be overlooked when it comes to the Western Balkans.

No one in Europe benefits from an unstable Balkans. History has shown that more than once. That is why the term “Euro-Atlantic integration” to describe the region’s future has to be far more than convenient rhetoric.

Far more than rhetoric

It has to be the main mechanism for driving security, stability and democracy in Europe’s front yard.

No doubt, the process of “Europeanizing” of this troubled region requires tough structural reforms on the part of the countries in the Western Balkans. The carrot of European Union membership has been used to motivate the political elites to drive transformation in their countries.

In the next few days, an important decision will be taken by the European Council regarding the future of EU integration for Albania and North Macedonia. Opening accession negotiations would definitely inject certainty and predictability into the region.

While it is important to reward these countries for the efforts made to date, it is vital to open negotiations to clear the path for future reforms under the watchful eye and conditionality of the EU.

The cost of integrating the Western Balkans into the European family and system of values is much lower than keeping them at arm’s lengths.

It takes two to tango

What direction the Western Balkans will take in the future depends both on the geopolitical vision of the EU as well as the political will of the countries in the region to undertake serious democratic reforms.

As far as the latter are concerned, it is time that they seriously show that they mean to maintain the course towards the West by “walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”

The EU always has been and will remain engaged in the Balkans. It is by far the largest donor, the largest trade partner and the largest foreign direct investor in the region.

Enlargement fatigue vs. reform fatigue

In February 2018, the European Commission published a promising and credible strategy on the Western Balkans, accompanied with six flagship initiatives. After many years of “enlargement fatigue” on the part of the EU, it seemed that the strategy gave a boost to optimism in the region, which is already affected by “reforms fatigue.”

However, the initial enthusiasm faded out quickly. In June 2018, the European Council postponed, yet again, the EU negotiation process for Albania and North Macedonia. The divide inside the EU on issues such as immigration, Brexit and others diverted the necessary level of political attention again away from the enlargement issue.

Clear choice for the EU

The EU faces a clear choice. If the EU puts is credibility and reliability at stake by not opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, the EU’s ability to apply rigorous conditionality on good governance would diminish.

This would create a big vacuum of Western power in the region. Countries in the region would inevitably start to get disoriented and engage in a quest to find the next “strategic” partner.

New dynamism from a new European Commission?

The good news is that the incoming President of the EU Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, has already announced that her commission will be committed to act geopolitically in a world of great power competition.

In recent years, Russia’s aggressive interference in the Western Balkans has increased. Russia’s goal, at a minimum, is to raise the costs of the region’s integration into NATO and the EU.

In well-established fashion, Russia thus acts as a spoiler and is keen to exploit the region’s internal political and economic vulnerabilities.

The China factor

China also plays an ever more visible role in the region. It sees the countries of the Western Balkans as low-hanging fruit. With its “easy money,” it has its ways to obtain a steadily rising level of economic and geopolitical control in Southeastern Europe.

The EU has to ask itself what it stands to gain over the medium and longer term, if these countries, as a result of rising Chinese influence, find themselves in a debt trap and lowering environmental and labor standards.

After all, this would mean not just perpetuating, but possibly worsening the already widespread corruption and lack of transparency in the region.

The susceptibility to Beijing’ growing diplomatic and economic activism in the region has been propelled by skepticism on whether the EU can formulate a common position toward the Western Balkans. In addition, potential alignments between Beijing’s and Moscow’s anti-Western spoiler narratives should not be overlooked when it comes to the Western Balkans.

Conclusion

The EU has the opportunity, and a strong self-interest, to lock in long-term positive momentum across the region.

This is the best moment for the EU to commit on enlargement, as polls show a big increase in the trust and optimism of more than 61% of European citizens towards the EU, the best results since 2014.

In this situation, EU member states should promote public debate about future enlargement, stress the importance of values, clear rules and good governance and support the overall development in the candidate states.

Finally, if the EU will not go into the Western Balkans with its democratic transformation tools and investment to bring it closer to its values and institutions, then the citizens from the Balkans will keep going to the EU.

Editor’s Note: The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent views and opinion of the Department of Defense or the Marshall Center.

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About Valbona Zeneli

Valbona Zeneli is Chair of the Strategic Initiatives Department at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

About Zoran Nechev

Zoran Nechev is a PhD candidate at the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

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